With the opening of his new film, Super 8, a lot of charitable onlookers are saying JJ Abrams must be the new Steven Spielberg. It’s not just that the two men went into amiable partnership on this project, with Spielberg producing and Abrams directing. Far more, it is the plot idea of American heartland kids in the 70s reckoning to make their own Super 8 epic and then seeing it take on a life that fits their raw imaginations. No one did more in his early career to demonstrate how easily a self-trained boy with cheap equipment could go to the big show than Spielberg – and become maybe the most famous movie director in the world. The best thing about Super 8 (as with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life) is the observation of the children and the overwhelming respect for the innocence of their vision, and its having no need to grow up.
I intend some doubt and caution in that, but above all I would warn Abrams of trying to be too like Spielberg, when Spielberg seems ready to go on and on. Jeffrey Jacobs Abrams is 46, and he’s an established success in American television, where he created, wrote and directed the hit series Alias and Lost. On the large screen, he has directed Mission: Impossible III (2006), Star Trek (2009) and Super 8, in which you can feel the inherited enthusiasm of a good deal of early Spielberg, but not the sublime, unhindered appetite for enormous metaphor that marked such modern myths as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – it never picked up the breeze of Spielberg’s confidence. Truth to tell, as a natural tribute to the master, Super 8 is a picture Spielberg might have made himself in the late 70s and turned into an emphatic hit.
By his own insane standards, Spielberg (who is 64) has had a period of rest after the relative neglect of The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can. But the time of reflection is over. He is about to deliver three extraordinary projects (rather as he once contrived to do Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List at the same time in 1993). This coming Oscar season will see his first animated movie, a project waited on for so many years, The Adventures of Tintin, and War Horse, taken from the Michael Morpurgo novel. A year later, all being well, we can expect to see his film about Abraham Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis as the president.
They might turn out three duds in a row. But I have to say the Tintin trailer looks glorious, and likely to please the millions of Hergéists. War Horse, with its marriage of immense crisis and childish experience, seems written for Spielberg. And if we expect Day-Lewis to disappoint as Lincoln, we should be given a rest ourselves.
In short, being the new Spielberg is going to be a tough challenge. What’s more important, these new projects demonstrate Spielberg’s appetite for fresh material. Over the years, especially with the Indiana Jones films, he was happy to pay tribute to genre movies. And it’s hard to think of another American director of his time who could have recognised and delivered to the screen JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1987), not just his greatest picture but the one in which childhood is no defence for the child. But I don’t think Spielberg would have done a tribute to another film-maker akin to Super 8. He’s a competitor.
Abrams is supposed to do further films in the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises. But how much self-discovery or surprise lies down those streets? It’s my guess that he is still most suited to the format of the extended television series, where he can unwind mystery and suspense slowly. Movies require a quite different narrative dynamic – acceleration and explosion. Spielberg did that from the outset – remember Duel? But Alias and Lost are labyrinths in which there does not have to be a resolution.
It comes to this: Spielberg has the old-fashioned ego and ambition of the classic director-producer figures. But Abrams strikes me as someone made by television – a writer-producer who does not have a pronounced directorial touch. And if you don’t have it, there’s no pretending.
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